Small combines talent, limited practice to prepare for title defense

Mike Small
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Mike Small is a three-time champion of the PGA Professional National Championship.
PGA of America

Series: PGA Feature

Published: Tuesday, June 14, 2011 | 3:34 p.m.

Two weeks before he will defend his title in the 44th PGA Professional National Championship, Mike Small was doing what college coaches do best – look at film and plan recruiting trips.

One of 171 college coaches holding PGA of America membership, the University of Illinois men's golf coach was busy running a summer camp and keeping an eye on the progress of one of his players, senior Chris DeForest, who is entered in the U.S. Open.

Small also did something for his own game, competing in the Fedex St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn. He took advantage of one of six exemptions he received for winning a National Championship last year, and returned home to Champaign, Ill., after finishing tied for 60th among a strong field.

"It was a successful week in that I made the cut, see what was working and though I did not strike the ball as well as I wanted, I got a chance to be out in competition," said Small, whose practice time is limited as a Division I college coach until June. "My schedule leading up to this year's National Championship is the same as it has been the past few years. I will plan to recruit for a few days then head out to the Championship."

Small is one of 312 entrants representing 44 states and 41 PGA Sections, June 26-29, in the National Championship at Hershey (Pa.) Country Club. The PGA Professional National Championship, making its first appearance in Pennsylvania, is presented by Club Car and Mercedes-Benz.

Small, 45, enjoyed another successful spring without playing a competitive round. On May 1, in West Lafayette, Ind., Small guided his third consecutive Big Ten Conference championship team and earned his fourth overall Big Ten Conference Coach of the Year honor. His team finished runner-up in the Indiana Regional, May 21, then ended its season by sharing fifth in the NCAA Championship, June 4, in Stillwater, Okla. It was the highest national finish by an Illinois team since finishing fourth in 1941 and matched Ohio State this year for the highest overall NCAA finish by a "cold-weather" school.

A 1988 graduate of the University of Illinois, Small says the cold weather climate of Champaign "is a fact that is forever used in recruiting against us by the Southern schools." To combat negativity, the 11th year Illinois coach led a fundraising campaign to build and design a state-of-the-art indoor practice facility, which has yielded dividends. In 2010, Illinois lefthander Scott Langley of St. Louis, now a senior, won the NCAA Division I individual title and finished as the low amateur in the U.S. Open.

This year, Small enjoys watching his team's depth take hold. Langley played No. 3 on the Illinois squad, with junior teammate Luke Guthrie surging to capture Big Ten Conference medalist laurels.

"I love doing what I do now and would not trade it," says Small, "It is great to be able to coach kids to play their best, watch them succeed and feel that you have helped their game and golf in general. The misconception is that I get to play a lot of golf all year, and that is just not true. If I did, my team would not be any good. I'm a coach that plays, not a coach who plays.

"A Division I college coach is traveling, planning and not out there hitting practice balls. I am blessed that I have played a lot of golf in the past, and have not forgotten what I have learned. Just being around the players that we have and watching good golf helps me prepare mentally."

Small's record in the PGA Professional National Championship is nonpareil, with six top-5 performances in seven Championships, a 70.61 scoring average for 28 rounds and earnings of $327,415.

That record would not have been as glossy had he not been able to endure physical hardships, including an inflamed disc in his back that he first suffered over a decade ago, and undergoing elbow surgery in 2003 and resulting tendinitis. The elbow injury came during a freak accident in a basketball pickup game. Small carries nine surgical pins in his right elbow, but you won't hear him whining.

This may come as a surprise, but the three-time PGA Professional Player of the Year owns only one Section Player of the Year title. He does own a record nine Illinois PGA Section Championships and four Illinois Open titles, but his coaching schedule clashes with the schedule of many top Illinois PGA point events.

"I have really enjoyed the competition, when I get to play, in our Section," says Small. "There are a lot of great players. I try to play as close to my home."

In 1997, Small made his debut at Hershey Country Club on the former Nike Tour. He had won the Nike Cleveland Open two weeks earlier, but missed the cut at the Nike Hershey Open. When Small visited in May during the National Championship Media Day, he was able to reacquaint himself with the East Course and play the adjoining West Course.

"My first goal in a National Championship is to make the top 20, which will earn a spot in the PGA Championship," says Small. "That is what all PGA Professionals are thinking from the start when they enter. It is a great reward, and this National Championship has truly been our Association's Super Bowl, Masters and U.S. Open."

The showcase event for PGA Professionals since 1968, the PGA Professional National Championship has been a "Small world" the past six years. It is a testament to one coach's talent and a commitment to making those under his care even better.